Call it a Hollywood ending. In Argo, a CIA operative enlists the help of moviemakers to concoct a fake film that would get real State Department hostages out of fractious Tehran. On Sunday night, at the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, now officially called The Oscars, Argo won the Best Picture award. “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life,” said Ben Affleck, the movie’s star, director and co-producer, as if channeling Rocky Balboa. “All that matters is that you get up.”
He may have meant missing out on being a Best Director finalist when the Academy nominations were announced on Jan. 10. (With nine Picture nominees and only five Directors, four auteurs were bound to be shut out.) Affleck had played that slight masterfully, making a movie that had long been an Oscar frontrunner into a winsome underdog. In the process, Argo became the first film since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990, and only the fourth in Academy history, to win Best Picture without a nomination for its director. That prize went to Ang Lee for his rapturous Life of Pi: the second time he’s been named Best Director but not won Best Picture. (His Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash in 2006.)
(READ: Why Argo was destined to win Best Picture)
The Acting awards went pretty much as forecast. Daniel Day-Lewis, the prohibitive favorite for Lincoln, is now the only person in Oscar history to have won three Best Actor awards. Anne Hathaway, another lock, parlayed her shorn, forlorn Fantine from Les Misérables into a Supporting Actress statuette. Jennifer Lawrence took Best Actress for her role as the young, mixed-up widow in Silver Linings Playbook. Christoph Waltz may have been a mild upset for Supporting Actor (unless you followed TIME.com’s Oscar predictions), but he has copped an Academy Award every time he’s been in a Quentin Tarantino movie: twice, for the 2009 Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained.
(SEE: The Full list of the 2013 Oscar winners)
Offered perhaps the strongest slate of Best Picture nominees since 1939 (when the 10 finalists were Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men and Goodbye, Mr. Chips), the Academy voters spread the love around. The big six awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress — went to six different movies (again, for the first time since 2006). Of the nine films on this year’s shortlist, eight won Oscars. Even the one wallflower, Beasts of the Southern Wild, had a treat for its elfin star Quvenzhané Wallis: earlier in the day, she was announced as the lead in a new film version of the musical Annie.
(PHOTOS: The portrait of Quvenzhané Wallis in TIME’s Great Performances folio)
The prizes for the other Best Picture nominees:
¶Life of Pi, 4: Director (Ang Lee), Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Score (Mychael Danna), Visual Effects
¶Argo, 3: Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio), Editing (William Goldenberg)
¶Les Misérables, 3: Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Sound Mixing, Makeup and Hairstyling
¶Lincoln, 2: Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Production Design (Rick Carter)
¶Django Unchained, 2: Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz), Original Screenplay (Quentin Tarantino)
¶Silver Linings Playbook, 1: Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
¶Amour, 1: Foreign Language Film
¶Zero Dark Thirty, ½: Sound Editing
Zero Dark Thirty got a half-vote? In a way: the film shared its Sound Editing Oscar with Skyfall — only the sixth time Oscar has named multiple winners. (The two biggies: Wallace Beery and Fredric March for Best Actor in 1932, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand for Best Actress in 1969.) The sound editors don’t get joint custody of the award; each was handed a gold-plated Oscar. But the near shut-out of Zero Dark Thirty indicated how, whenever the voters had a chance to be the tiniest bit radical, they collapsed toward the center.
(ZDT REVIEW: The Girl Who Got bin Laden)
ZDT, like Argo, a CIA-officer-as-Mideast-hero movie, came from the director-writing tandem of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who won Oscars galore three years ago with their previous war-on-terror film The Hurt Locker. But the attacks on their new movie from Senators in Washington’s liberal establishment seemed to scare off the members of Hollywood’s liberal establishment. Bigelow was left off the Director shortlist — this, not the omission of Affleck, was the true shock of the nominations announcements — and ZDT won its half-award for the BANG and BOOM of war, not for its vigorous depiction of the ethical price a nation is willing to pay to catch the bad guy.
(SEE: TIME’s cover story on Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow)
In a ragged, three-and-a-half-hour show hosted with more smarm than charm by Seth MacFarlane, creator of rowdy TV cartoons (Family Guy, American Dad) and one live-action movie (Ted), showbiz self-love was often on display. Argo, the first Best Picture since Crash seven years ago to win as few as three Oscars, also took Adapted Screenplay and Editing. And Searching for Sugar Man, the very agreeable tale of the little-known Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who became a mysterious pop star in South Africa, was named Best Documentary Feature over four political films on life-and-death matters (AIDS, the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, and sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military). The Academy went for feel-good over think-hard.
(READ: James Poniewozik’s takedown of the Oscar TV show)
For Animated Feature, the voters might have selected the eye-popping comedy Wreck-It Ralph — it would have been the first in-house Walt Disney Studio production to win in that category — but favored the more stately Pixar drama Brave. (Pixar also won Animated Short: Paperman.) They were similarly cautious in their choice of Best Actress. They might, should have rewarded the brilliant performances by the all-time youngest Best Actress nominee, Wallis, 9, and the oldest, Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva, who spent her 86th birthday in an aisle seat at the Dolby Theatre. Another tie would have been almost poetically apt. But Wallis and Riva were either too young or too old. Or, as an indie gamine and a Frenchwoman who never showed interest in Hollywood, they were too outside. So they watched as the 22-year-old Lawrence tripped on her bedspread of a gown as she strode to the stage to accept the only Oscar Silver Linings Playbook would win.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Silver Linings Playbook)
For all the awards lavished on Argo, the movie that regularly evoked the strongest cheers was Life of Pi. We’ve said before that the Academy votes for the ones they love over the ones they admire. That goes for Life of Pi over Lincoln in the number of prizes (four to two) — and for Lee’s Best Director win over Steven Spielberg. Not that the members hate the 65-year-old boy wonder. But they luuuvvv the friendly, fiercely driven Taiwan helmer and his against-all-odds achievement with the movie about the boy on the raft with the tiger. Given that the smart money has been on Argo for Best Picture for more than a month, the only suspense in a major category was Director. With that win, the Academy gave Ang Lee his own Hollywood ending.